Restaurant Association of Maryland President and CEO Marshall Weston said Tuesday that the biggest challenge for restaurants in the near-term future is retaining enough employees to serve the increased number of customers who have recently decided to dine out.
Last month, Gov. Larry Hogan decided to allow the state’s restaurants to go from 50% dining capacity to 100% dining capacity. The removal of state restrictions left local jurisdictions with choice of whether or not to allow restaurants to re-open at fully capacity. Most jurisdictions opted to allow fully capacity.
Below is an edited excerpt of an interview Weston did with MarylandReporter.com that focused on the reopening, improving vaccination metrics, and challenges faced by the restaurant industry.
MarylandReporter.com: It has been about a month since the decision was made to allow restaurants to operate at full capacity. Has the situation improved for restaurants?
Weston: I think that the biggest difference is consumer confidence. And that is what we have seen over the last month is that people feel more willing to go out and support restaurants a lot more frequently than they had over the previous year. So, that is a good sign that people feel comfortable going to restaurants. And that is really what it is going to take for the restaurant industry to overcome this pandemic.
MarylandReporter.com: The state’s positivity rate is gradually rising and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has warned that a fourth wave of the virus may be coming. How concerned are you that capacity restrictions may have to reimposed on restaurants and if that happens how might that affect the already struggling industry?
Weston: We do not want to look at the idea of having more restrictions or going back to restrictions on our industry. We really want to see the number of vaccinations just continue to increase exponentially. And I think ultimately that is what it is going to take to overcome all of these waves of the virus. Ultimately, we will get to the point where we have herd immunity through vaccinations. And I think that is what we are really looking forward to. We really cannot think about going backwards at this point.
MarylandReporter:com: Following up on that point, what would you say to policymakers who claim that the state re-opened too early and that some restrictions should be reimposed?
Weston: I would say that there is still no indication or evidence that proves that restaurants or really any businesses are the contributing factor to these increasing cases of COVID-19. We have seen schools that are returning. We have seen the CDC put out guidance that says that children can sit even closer together than six feet. And there are a lot of changes that are happening. What we should know at this point is that it is difficult to pinpoint any one thing that is contributing to any increase in cases. It’s a lot of different things. So, after a very long year, it would be grossly unfair to start restricting restaurants again when they are trying to safe their businesses.
MarylandReporter.com: Do you possibly envision a scenario in which restaurants might decide or even be compelled to require customers to show proof of vaccination as a pre-condition for dining in?
Weston: I don’t get any sense that that is going to be a realistic possibility. I certainly am not educated enough to know the answer to that. But I don’t get the sense that that is something we should be thinking about.
MarylandReporter.com: How concerned are you that restaurants could face a flurry of lawsuits if people either get sick or die from COVID-19 and sue based on the claim that the virus may have been contracted while dining out?
Weston: Certainly restaurants are concerned and all businesses should really be concerned about frivolous lawsuits. And the idea that any one business is going to be responsible for the contraction of COVID-19 should be very concerning. So we are looking to the Maryland General Assembly to pass legislation that protects restaurants and other small businesses from these types of lawsuits. Restaurants will continue to operate safely and do everything they can. So, we have been asking for many months now that lawmakers take a look at this issue and ensure that businesses are not going to be closed permanently and people will not lose their livelihoods just because of an accusation.
MarylandReporter.com: What is the biggest challenge facing restaurants moving forward?
Weston: Restaurants are really struggling with employees. This is the number one concern that restaurants across the state are telling our office right now: is that they do not have enough employees to function at the increased capacity-with the increased number of people that are dining out and supporting restaurants on a regular basis. And that is a big concerns of ours. Where people are not incentivized to go back to work is really going to impact our industry tremendously. And as we get closer to the summer we are going to see this be a real problem for Ocean City all the way to Baltimore and even western Maryland. We really have to have people coming back to work so that we can accommodate this pent up demand that we are going to see.